NEW YORK -- When DeJuan Blair daydreams about hitting a last-second shot to win a national title for Pittsburgh, he envisions it happening in a way that only he could. "I can see it on SportsCenter," Blair says. "Levance" -- Fields, the point guard who's hit so many clutch shots in Panthers lore -- "finally misses one, and I'm right there, under the hoop, getting the offensive board and putting it back up. That would be off the hook."
As strange as it might seem for a player to dream about such a non-glamorous task as offensive rebounding, this scenario could very well play out in Detroit. Pitt, which opens play in the Big East tournament on Thursday, should be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in large part because the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Blair has been the most dominant major-conference offensive rebounder of not just this season, but the past eight seasons. And we only say eight because that's how far back DraftExpress' pace-adjusted, per-40-minutes offensive rebounding stats go. The chart below -- listing the top 10 offensive rebounders since 2001-02 (with a minimum of 20 minutes played/game) -- shows just how much separation there is between Blair and the rest of the college hoops universe:
Rk. Player Team Yr. OR/40 (Pace Adj.) 1. DeJuan Blair Pitt 08-09 8.4 2. K. Gransberry USF 06-07 6.6 3. Chris Massie Memphis 01-02 6.6 4. Joey Dorsey Memphis 06-07 6.5 5. Ivan Kartelo Purdue 03-04 6.3 6. DeJuan Blair Pitt 07-08 6.1 6. James Thomas Texas 02-03 6.1 8. Justin Davis Stanford 02-03 5.8 9. Justin Davis Stanford 03-04 5.8 10. Kevin Young Missouri 05-06 5.7 10. P.J. Tucker Texas 03-04 5.7
No player in '08-09 is even in the vicinity of Blair in rebounds/40 minutes (once again, adjusted for pace):
Rk. Player Team OR/40 (Pace Adj.) 1. DeJuan Blair Pitt 8.4 2. Murphy Holloway Ole Miss 5.4 3. Jon Brockman Wash. 5.3 4. JaMychal Green Alabama 5.3 5. Chinemelu Elonu Texas A&M 5.1
If we switch over to the Basketball Prospectus and kenpom.com-favored stat of Offensive Rebounding percentage, we see that Blair is grabbing a superhuman 24.2 percent of Pitt misses, also tops in the nation. (BP recently made the mind-boggling observation that Blair is also outrebounding seven D-I teams on the offensive glass.)
Rk. Player Team OR% 1. DeJuan Blair Pitt 24.2 2. Tracy Smith NC State 17.0 3. Jon Brockman Wash. 16.6 4. JaMychal Green Alabama 15.8 5. Murphy Holloway Ole Miss 15.3
No more numbers are necessary to make the point: Blair kills on the offensive glass, so much so that he's the most important offensive player in the country this year, and one of the biggest statistical outliers of the decade. What the numbers cannot reveal, though, is how exactly Blair does what he does. What are the secrets of Pitt's perpetually grinning, bicep-band-wearing warrior? I talked to a few trusted sources -- inside and outside the Pitt program -- to get the answers.
1. It's the "Suction Cups"
The advantages Blair gains with his wingspan (which is 7-2) and his posterior (which is quite large) have been well-chronicled, but his hands may be what truly set him apart. Think about it: How many times, if ever, have you seen a board in Blair's orbit bounce off of his hands rather than be reeled in?
UConn assistant George Blaney's scouting report on Blair said that "he has the best pair of hands I've seen in 40 years of coaching." Fellow Huskies assistant Patrick Sellers, who has mentored Blair's rival, Hasheem Thabeet, said that Blair reminds him of Zach Randolph, of whom Knicks announcer Mike Breen used to say, "he has magnet hands." Blair, Sellers said, "has suction-cup hands."
The strength of Blair's suction cups isn't just something to be seen. It can also be heard. Fields told me that "the noise of DeJuan grabbing a rebound is crazy." Blair has even wowed himself with this, saying, "When I pull it in sometimes, it sounds like the ball pops."
2. Anticipating Position
Ever notice how Blair always seems to be in perfect weakside position to pull down Pitt misses? This is no fluke. Panthers assistant coach Tom Herrion said that a vastly underrated reason for Blair's success is the quality of Pitt's first-shot offense. "Because we execute so well," Herrion said, "DeJuan has an understanding of where shots are going to show, especially when he's not taking them, and that lets him get in good position and work the right angles." So, for example, when a play is being run for Sam Young to get a wide-open three from the right corner, Blair has usually moved to the left block before the defense even knows what's happening.
3. Staying Home
Blair, perhaps more than any other marquee big man, stays in and around the lane. Whereas UConn's Hasheem Thabeet and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough can frequently be found setting bruising screens on the perimeter and slipping free to the basket, Blair's job mostly calls for him to set an early ball screen (for Fields) while he's running down the floor, and then camp out in the paint after that. Pitt then attempts to free Blair up for post touches by setting across-the-lane screens, off of which he can receive the ball at close range to the basket, lower his shoulder, and drop it in for two points. Rarely does he roam outside the lane to receive passes, and this keeps him in prime position to clean up others' misses.
4. Acting "like the basketball is money"
A great offensive rebounder must want the ball more than anyone else on the floor, and as Notre Dame assistant Sean Kearney says of Blair, "When he sees a shot go off the rim, it's almost like a shark smelling blood in the water."
It's a desire that must be unending as well. Sellers put it this way: "Just to get the six or seven [offensive rebounds] Blair gets to lead the country, he has to go to the glass 40 or 50 times a game. So it's not just the hands or the body, it's the heart; he has that will to say, 'I'm going to keep going and going.'"
Take Pitt's first win over UConn, on Feb. 16 in Hartford, as an example: Pitt took 65 field-goal attempts. Ten were makes by Blair. He likely chased after 50 misses. Plenty of them bounced so far out of his reach that they were impossible to corral. Ten fell into the hands of his teammates. Six were reeled in by Blair. Six is a huge number of offensive boards per game, enough to lead the country. And in order to get those he only succeeded at a 12 percent rate on that night.
I asked Blair how he manages to be so relentless, when the task at hand can often seem so futile. And this is what he said: "I love money, so I act like the basketball is money when I'm rebounding. I pretend that every rebound is a million dollars. And I'm going to go out and get my millions."